A Small-Town Boy
Thornton A. Wilson was born on February 8, 1921, in Sikeston, Missouri, where he spent his early years before the family uprooted themselves to Jefferson City in the early 1930s. It was there that Wilson attended high school, as well as where he got his first management experience: Because his high school had a pool but no swim coach, Wilson himself organized workouts, meets, and race schedules.
Following high school graduation, T. A. Wilson briefly attended a junior college in Jefferson City before enrolling at Iowa State University to study aeronautical engineering. Bachelor’s in hand by the summer of 1943, he eyed a move to the West Coast and accepted an engineering position with The Boeing Company in Seattle, the hometown of his fiancée, Grace. It was a decision that would change his life.
Putting the Pieces Together
Almost from the get-go, T. A. Wilson established himself as a bright and capable engineer at Boeing. But even so, it would be a few years before his career really got onto the fast track. In 1946, after just three years with the company, Wilson left Boeing -- first to teach a bit at Iowa State, then to pursue a master's degree in aeronautical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He returned in 1948, but left again in 1952 after being named a Sloan Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he took a year-long program in industrial management. The stint at MIT (sponsored by Boeing) was indeed an honor, bestowed on a young man who had already established himself as a no-nonsense leader who demanded (and got) results. Wilson’s reputation was such that he was described as a guy who would “knock down his grandmother if she got in the way of an important task” (Serling, p. 113).
Off Like a Rocket
With a master's and his MIT studies completed by 1953, everything was in place for T. A. Wilson to rise quickly within The Boeing Company. In 1958 he became manager of the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program. Success in that division led to the vice presidency of the Aerospace Division’s Missile Branch in 1962, then vice president for operations and planning at Boeing’s corporate headquarters in 1964. T. A. Wilson’s growing importance was cemented in 1966, when he was named to Boeing’s board of directors and accepted the position of executive vice president. This was a newly created post within Boeing’s top management, and one that clearly identified him as the heir-apparent to Boeing president William M. Allen (1900-1985), who had led the company through a tremendous growth period during the 1950s and 1960s. (Interestingly, Wilson’s background as an engineer made him a unique candidate for Boeing’s top position -- CEOs for large companies were typically drawn from the legal or financial ranks. Wilson’s intelligence, hard work, and a proven track record for getting results clearly overcame any obstacles that may have been in his way.)
Taking the Reins
It was just two years later, in April 1968, that T. A. Wilson was named president of Boeing; the transition from Allen to Wilson was completed the following year, when T. A. Wilson was named president and CEO of the company.
Wilson’s ascension came at a rather auspicious time. The Boeing Company employed well over 100,000 people by the late 1960s. When the airline industry took a sudden downturn shortly after Wilson took over, Boeing -- which had staked its future on the new (and very expensive) 747 airliner -- found itself in serious financial trouble. Almost immediately, T. A. Wilson was faced with one of the most difficult problems he would ever face during his career.
As Wilson recalled, "(Boeing was) just bleeding to death ... We had money going out all the time" ("T"). Although he knew the repercussions would be severe, drastic action was required so that the company could remain afloat. Wilson decided on an immediate workforce reduction, clearing overhead but putting thousands of longtime Boeing employees out of work with little or no notice.
These layoffs, combined with a hiring freeze, shed 60,000 people from the Boeing payroll between 1968 and 1971, a painful retrenchment that sent economic waves throughout the Puget Sound region, and even prompted one famous billboard to ask “Will the last person leaving Seattle -- turn out the lights” (Lange). At the same time Wilson was making these painful cuts, he was also attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to diversify Boeing’s business lines, which included building light rail cars for the city of Boston.
It was a trying time, and it didn’t come without a personal toll. In January 1970, while flying between Seattle and Washington D.C., T. A. Wilson suffered a heart attack at age 48. Fortunately the corporate jet was able to touch down in Spokane, where he received immediate care at Deaconess Hospital. (William M. Allen returned to his former position for three months until Wilson was able to resume his duties in March 1970.) It was Wilson’s second heart attack -- he had had a very mild one 10 years earlier; later, in 1977, he would go into cardiac arrest during an angiogram procedure.
Rising Once Again
In 1972, T. A. Wilson was elected chairman of the board for The Boeing Company, succeeding William M. Allen, who became chairman emeritus. Although Boeing still wasn’t out of the water, Wilson’s cuts were helping rescue the company -- and with continued work on the new 747 program, it was now in a position to grow once again.
And under T. A. Wilson’s leadership, once again The Boeing Company began to soar. Although sometimes viewed as abrupt, rude, tight-fisted, demanding and humorless, it was clear by 1975 that he had engineered a remarkable turnaround at the company. "You have to be decisive," he once told Robert L. Twiss of The Seattle Times. "Indecisiveness is confusing. You make a commitment, pursue it and, if it becomes difficult, you fight your way out of it" (“Wilson’s Decisions”).
Bolstered by annual sales in the $4 to $5 billion range, Boeing employed close to 60,000 people by the late 1970s -- still not close to its peak years, but up significantly from the 39,000 it employed just after the “Bust.” Such was Wilson’s success that, in 1978, the Associated Press named him as one of Washington state’s 10 most powerful people. Wilson was the state’s highest-rated private citizen, behind Senators Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and Warren Magnuson (1905-1989), and Governor Dixie Lee Ray (1914-1994).
Boeing’s success brought increasing attention to Wilson and his colleagues, and not always to Wilson's liking. Many were outraged in 1978 when the media discovered that his compensation package topped $1 million per year. (The same was true for Boeing president Malcolm Stamper.) Wilson made no apologies, but for the remainder of his career continued to face criticism of his pay. Scrutiny of his private activities was another source of frustration. He liked to keep his business and family lives separate, and railed when the media did not afford him this privilege. "He used to have ten beehives in his yard, until the newspapers found out and publicized it," noted a colleague in 1977. "If you started to watch his golf game, I’d bet he’d stop playing golf" (“Privacy at the Top”).
At heart, “T,” as many Boeing employees called him (a holdover from his boyhood, when he was known as “Little T” to his father’s “Big T”), wasn’t too far removed from his employees in terms of interests and lifestyle. He was a man of simple tastes who lived in the same south Seattle home for most of his life, despite his continued ascension within the company. He was also notorious for dressing casually and driving older, well-worn cars, much to the chagrin of more image-conscious Boeing executives. He not only failed to look like a corporate head, but also failed to act like one. Many a meeting found Wilson with his shoes off and stocking feet perched atop the conference room table. And his favorite way to unwind after a long day at work was simply to watch television -- the Boston Pops Orchestra and Monty Python’s Flying Circus were two of his favorite shows.
Flying High in the 1980s
Boeing continued to prosper during the Reagan years, and T. A. Wilson and the company’s resurgence were the focus of a Time magazine cover story in April 1980. Boeing recorded huge profits after the 747 program regained momentum, and the new 757 and 767 airliners were officially unveiled in 1982. Wilson also earned one of aviation’s most prestigious awards based on the 757 and 767 programs -- the 1982 Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautics Association. With recognition to The Boeing Company, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the commercial airlines themselves, Wilson was honored because those planes represented “major advances in commercial transport technology ... No other manufacturing team has ever produced two major jetliners simultaneously. It is an unequalled accomplishment ... .” (“Collier Trophy”). The 1982 award was Boeing’s third Collier Trophy: William Allen had won in 1955 for the B-52 Stratofortress, and the company itself won in 1971 for the introduction of the 747 jetliner.
Seattle’s “First Citizen”
With Boeing’s success returning the company to the forefront of the aviation industry, it was only fitting that the Seattle/King County Board of Realtors honored T. A. Wilson as Seattle’s “First Citizen” of 1983. In announcing the award, committee chair Philip P. Souza described Wilson as someone who "continued over the years to shoulder his home city responsibilities in community and civic betterment," despite his duties to The Boeing Company (“T. A. Wilson Named City’s First Citizen”).
Consistent with his unassuming style, T. A. Wilson was never as active in the community as other high-profile CEOs -- in fact, Boeing’s presence in community affairs often fell to others on his management team. Instead, Wilson was always more focused on work at Boeing (which, in its own way, greatly helped the Puget Sound area). This was typical of his style -- despite heading one of the region’s most powerful companies, Wilson and the company were never ones to throw their weight around. In fact, it was frequently noted that Boeing was seen as a team player in local business and political affairs -- their lobbyists only rarely attempted to press Boeing’s issues at the expense of others. (Given Boeing’s importance to the Puget Sound economy, however, they probably didn’t have to do much to get their way.)
Wilson’s low profile, however, didn’t keep him from amassing an impressive array of civic achievements: work with the United Way and with the Governor’s Committee for Commerce and Industry, and serving on the boards of the National Arthritis Foundation, U.S. Steel, PACCAR, Seattle First National Bank, and Weyerhaeuser. Wilson was also on the board of governors for Iowa State University, active in the Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and was an inductee into the Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Business Hall of Fame.
On March 14, 1984, T. A. Wilson was honored for all those achievements with at the Realtor awards ceremony, held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle.
Eventually, however, there came a time when T. A. Wilson was ready hand the reins of The Boeing Company to someone else. At the April 1986 annual shareholder meeting, Wilson formally stepped aside as Boeing’s CEO, with Frank Shrontz taking the helm of the company. Wilson thanked many during his speech to shareholders, but specifically singled out Boeing employees "for having made me look relatively good and better than I deserve" (“A Farewell to Boeing’s Wilson”). Wilson’s tenure was ending on a high note: The company reported record earnings in 1985, although its defense systems were singled out as a weak point (ironic, given Wilson’s initial rise managing the Minuteman missile program). It was the fulfillment of a prophecy: In 1971, Wilson had predicted -- in the middle of the “Boeing Bust” -- that the airline industry would see huge gains by 1985. He had proven himself correct (“Brighter Years Ahead”).
T. A. Wilson had definitely left his mark on The Boeing Company, but he was not without his detractors. Described by an interviewer "complex, intelligent, likable, and difficult" ("T"), many questioned Wilson’s leadership style despite the record profits. He wanted final say, for instance, on virtually all important decisions, even those that typically weren’t CEO-level issues. Similarly, his background found him constantly in touch with his engineering colleagues, dwelling on their work much more so than other, more business-oriented executives.
On top of micro-managing, Wilson’s blunt nature could be off-putting. How else to describe his comments on helping to establish the Museum of Flight in the 1980s? Although he was CEO of the largest aircraft company in the world, Wilson freely admitted that he wasn’t particularly taken with the idea of a museum, and that he was doing it only for the sake of his employees. "I’m not an airplane buff," he announced to reporters. (When pressed a bit on that comment, coming as it did from Boeing’s CEO and an aeronautical engineer to boot, Wilson retorted "Do you have to be a buff? ... I like management.") And of the red barn that originally housed The Boeing Company, slated to be preserved as part of the Museum of Flight, Wilson remarked that "left to my own devices, I’d have pushed that building into the Duwamish River, and still have mixed emotions about the fact we didn’t" (“T”). As a colleague once noted, "[i]f T decided to say something, there was no way to head him off" (Serling, p. 427).
T. A. Wilson may have stepped down as The Boeing Company’s CEO in 1986, but he remained chairman of the board until he formally retired on January 1, 1988, after 44 years at Boeing. Two weeks following his 1988 retirement, at a lavish black-tie affair held in his honor, approximately 500 people (friends, family, politicians, and corporate leaders from around the world) gathered to honor his impressive career. Security for the event, held at Seattle’s Westin Hotel, was extremely tight -- reporters likened it to a Presidential visit. This lack of media access, coupled with growing clouds on Boeing’s financial horizon, led the press to be critical of the event. Reminiscent of the scrutiny that had earlier hounded Wilson’s compensation, The Seattle Times openly questioned the expense of the lavish retirement party, since hours earlier the company formally announced that 1987 profits were down 28 percent, or nearly $500 million (“Guests Bid Wilson Farewell”).
Consistent with his private nature, T. A. Wilson retired to the quiet life, staying out of the public limelight as much as possible. He continued to serve on the Boeing board until 1993, and was honored with the Elmer J. Nordstrom Humanitarian Award in 1989, but generally had kept a low profile upon leaving his official post at The Boeing Company.
He and his wife, Grace, continued to spend summers in the same Three Tree Point neighborhood (near Sea-Tac) where they had lived for most of their lives. They spent winters at the couple’s second home in Palm Springs, and that is where “T” passed away on April 10, 1999. “We are deeply saddened at the passing of a truly great business leader and visionary human being,” remarked Boeing chairman and CEO Phil Condit. “Few men were more closely linked to the success of Boeing and the global aerospace industry than T. Wilson ... T's name was synonymous with excellence, and we will deeply miss him” (“T. A. Wilson Remembered”). Wilson was survived by his wife, three children, and six grandchildren.